Molly Luce Burroughs

Molly Luce Burroughs

1896 – 1986

Essay by Lease Plimpton

Panel from the 20th Century Artists Exhibit

1981 Oral History Recording and Transcript by The Smithsonian Institution (external link)

Art Students by Molly Luce, featuring Molly Luce (right) and Betty Burroughs (left). LCHS Collection.

Essay by Lease Plimpton

In 1934, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, bought two paintings by women, one was Georgia O’Keeffe and the other was Molly Luce.

Molly Luce was born in Pittsburgh, grew up mostly in New Jersey with summers spent at her grandparents in Ohio.  She was, from an early age, drawing.  By her own account, she also wrote well enough to be on high school paper staff. Though not artists themselves, her parents let Molly come to Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, when she was 18 and after two years, there she finally got to the Art Students League, recognized as one the top art schools in the nation. 

From the first day when this tiny young woman, Katherine Schmidt, said ”Would you help me hang up my coat?”, Molly became of a part of a group of artists, most of whose names are well known.  Others in the quickly cohesive group were Betty Burroughs, Lloyd Goodrich, Yasao Kuniyoshi, Alexander Brook, Henry Billings, Peggy Bacon, Edmund Duffy, Lloyd Parsons and Reginald Marsh. It was an astonishing group with long ranging contacts and connections.

Molly Luce was driven all her life to work, to create, to learn.  To have such good and equally-driven friends was an extra.

For teachers they had F. Lois Mora, George Bellows, Boardman Robinson, George Bridgman and Solon Borglum, whose brother created the faces on Mount Rushmore.  However, the primary influence was Kenneth Hayes Miller.  Later in writing an unpublished autobiography, Molly Luce described Miller’s belief, steadily transmitted to his students, that art was a profession as worthy of respect as that of a doctor.  Miller’s attitude was not widely held, but confirmed what legions of his students felt.

While at the Art Students League Molly developed a close friendship with Betty Burroughs, who took her home to Flushing to visit her family. Betty’s father, Bryson Burroughs was an artist of note himself; her Mother, Edith (formerly Woodman) an accomplished sculptor.  Betty’s brother, Alan, an art examiner working at the edge of x-ray technology at the Minneapolis museum, must have been in Flushing from time to time since he and Molly were married in April,1926.

Molly had graduated, traveled in Europe, both in 1922.  By 1924, she is exhibiting at the Whitney Studio and her career was well and truly started.

Molly Luce and Alan Burroughs had lives devoted to art and to each other.  She painted them sitting in gardens on hillsides and stone walls, always looking at each other.

After their marriage in 1928, Alan Burroughs went to work for the Fogg Museum.  Since Molly’s name as an artist never changed from Luce, it was not until the highly publicized sale of her “Beach at High Tide”, which was bought by the Met, that Molly was recognized at a party in Cambridge.  Until then people had only known her as Molly Burroughs. They were quite amazed that an artist unknown to them, right in their midst, was going to the Metropolitan in New York.

From Massachusetts, Molly Luce and Alan Burroughs moved to Little Compton in 1942, to a house with a barn and land enough for chickens, the cat, the goat, all of whom look so alive in her paintings at the library.

Her career spanned at least 50 years, not counting the work she did before college.  During those decades, Molly Luce exhibited across the nation and won many awards, a fact as obscure to the people of Little Compton as those long-ago academics at Harvard.  Her obscurity would be total if she had not generously willed paintings to the Historic Society, who in turn generously continues to lend them to the Brownell Free Public Library of Little Compton, and there they hang for all to see.

Over 20-plus Molly Luce paintings hang around the walls of library rooms near the ceilings, the range of them is a capsule of her work. In one she is seated with Betty Burroughs when they are at the Art Students League, another a very early cabin in woods. The paintings are from all decades of her life, all of her styles are there.

Landscapes, primarily Little Compton with still-visible landmarks and beaches, flowers that bloom here and birds that return each spring. Luce has caught the calm, a moment of stillness that one can feel here today. In this hectic world, Little Compton continues to have a strong bond with nature, countryside and sea. The picnics she often painted have in them forbearers of present day folk who still live, visit, picnic here. 

Her paintings, often from a hill top, of people at outdoor markets, skiing, coming out of church, playing at the water’s edge or in a field, earned her the title “the American Breughel.”  Molly was only 31 when described this way in an article in The Arts written by Alan Burroughs.  Henry McBride in the New York Sun spread the label more widely, and it was used to describe her all of her life.

But Luce’s style was not limited to Regionalism, but it is safe to say that in studying her work one finds traces of additional schools. I do not say influences and I may be wrong, but there is something stubborn, resistant in her work that says what she saw — and she looked at a lot of paintings in her travels — went into her subconscious.  Her observations would later show up as her take on a style. 

Over the years I have come to see, besides the obvious Bruegel vista/vantage point, the Japanese print style of foreground, middle ground, distant background.  Many paintings have plants/flowers and or birds/animals as the first things one sees.  Behind is a field, a beach and backing this are clouds, billowing, boiling, often lit by sun or moon expanded to striking intensity. There are flashes of Surrealism; Regionalism is so strong it almost overpowers. Some critic claimed she was the best of them, being on a par with Grant Wood. This quietly powerful painter just kept painting this town and its creatures.

Not all these aspects of nature that she depicted were benign. Crows besiege a snowy owl, eagles swoop down on the church spire of the recognizable Congregational Church, which is visible in the foreground and background of many of Molly Luce’s paintings.  Her paintings of people in the town — cooking, farming, hanging up the wash, fishing — do not look warm and friendly.  Nor are her animals and birds soft or cuddly.  Here one can see her expressing a form of Surrealism.  Her leaping cat, wild-eyed, pawing at the air has the church in the distance.  Or Gus, their goat, looks like a 20th Century version of some medieval demented animal about to morph into Bacchus. 

Intense color, strong drawing, varied subject matter, dedication, Molly had all of those at her command.  But somehow it slipped away.

In her later years, after Alan had passed away, she was quite desperate for money.  She invited the Little Compton Garden Club, of which she was a member, to tea at her home.  Then she pushed them to buy a painting.  She held yard sales, and she had a good friend, Virginia Lynch, noted Four Corners Gallery owner, along with D. Roger Howlett of the Childs Gallery on Newberry St. in Boston. They really worked on Molly’s behalf.

Available to view in the research area of the Brownell Free Public Library of Little Compton is a copy of the wonderful brochure of an exhibit Childs Gallery had of Molly Luce’s life and work, with a foreword by Lloyd Goodrich.  Well illustrated and written, it gives a very satisfying view of her life, her work.

Molly Luce passed away April 16,1986, in her own bed. Her barn was filled with paintings, a big sale was held, and now sitting in many as-yet-unknown homes are timeless reminders of the core beauty of Little Compton. She captured in paint flower and fauna, land and sea, sentiments and stories, activities and leisure — the timeless quality of life in this demi-paradise.

Lease Plimpton

April 2020

Panel from the 20th Century Artists Exhibit

From Little Compton Historical Society’s 2017 Exhibit : Little Compton’s 20th Century Artists

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One thought on “Molly Luce Burroughs

  1. So many of her background landscapes included foreground of local flora…. a personal presentation but also an overview of the town.

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